"When they did the underground nuclear test, my equipment picked it up." It was a hot afternoon in southern Nevada and my brother and I had stopped by the side of Nevada State Highway 375, a small two-lane highway in the middle of nowhere, to take a reading. The dust cloud the four-wheel drive pickup had created was starting to settle down. My brother was doing a seismic survey over the area he had leased, plus running geomag over the claims he had staked.
The goal was to find an extension to the oil and gas fields that had been discovered nearby. Because there as also mineralization in this area, he had staked claims and was also planning to test for gold and silver.
It wasn't an easy task. Tertiary volcanics covered everything in the Basin and Range province, and essentially masked what lay underneath.
"Check it out. More activity."
"What are you talking about?" I asked him. The wind had picked up. In the distance I could hear the buzz of a rattlesnake. A small shiver went up my spine and I made a mental note to be sure to scan the ground in front of me to avoid snakes.
"We're on the brink again. That's my guess," he said. I hated it when he got cryptic like this.
"What do you mean? Brink of what?" I asked.
"Incineration, of course."
I looked out across the Basin and Range desert valley and mountain landscape I had come to love. We were not far from an area reputed to have secret goings-on - visitors from other dimensions, interplanetary space craft, even alien beings supposedly filed away in secret underground catacombs. The rumors were so persistent that the State of Nevada decided to capitalize on it. Nevada Highway 375 has been renamed Extraterrestrial Highway and the highway signs have drawings of flying saucers.
When it came to such things, I preferred to remain neutral. A couple of my dad's friends firmly embraced the notion that beings from other galaxies or dimensions are in contact with us.
My dad has eccentric friends, it's true. My dad, a scientist, embraces the power of ideas, and welcomes alternative explanations. I'm the same, but not. I like to go further with the wild ideas, I like to call it fiction or art. Then I turn inward and feel uncomfortable about intellectual risks of any sort. I don't really understand how or why that happens, but it does.
Today, I'd much rather think about we might see here on the Extraterrestrial Highway than what faces us in the headlines. Geopolitical brinksmanship and nuclear bristling and staredowns - first, the Cold War, then craziness with France, China, India and Pakistan, then all the others - North Korea, Israel, on and on. All said they were merely defending their right to exist as an autonomous nation, aggressively defending their own sovereignty. It looked a lot more like suicidal extortion to me, but, what did I know?
I remember the first time I became aware of the concept of M.A.D. - mutually assured destruction - it gave me nightmares. I was around 10 years old. Later, I became numb to all of this.
Here in Nevada, this particular valley was thick with Joshua trees. Joshua trees only grow when conditions are perfect for them - cold, dry winters, hot summers, medium altitude. They do not grow further south, where the saguaro grow. Nor do they coexist with the bristlecone pine to the north.
My brother sat on the bumper of the truck and looked to the horizon.
"They used to do above-ground testing across that mountain range in the next valley," he said.
"Can people go there now?" I asked.
"No way. I accidentally too far down a road - I took a wrong turn. A helicopter started coming toward me."
I wondered what the atmosphere was like back in the Cold War days. Ironically, Nevada's "sister state" in the National Guard State Partnership system is Turkmenistan. In the old days, Turkmenistan was a super-secret republic of the former Soviet Union. It was a place of nukes, nuclear testing, weapons production, and who-knows-what. It is still quite off limits which is controlled by a man who reminds me of what is known of Timur the Great. He seems to have a deep, abiding need to build memory, monuments, identity, autonomy.
The northern region of the Caspian Sea reminded me of the areas north of the great reservoir lakes of the 4-corners region of the U.S. Lake Mead, Lake Powell, and others were forged by human technology. As one swims or pulls fish from the cold waters, does one consider the possibility of radiation seeping through the porous Navajo sandstone?
Ten years before, my brother and I went swimming in Lake Powell. The waters were as red as blood, and the Navajo sandstone was gritty under our feet. The medium-to-coarse grained sandstone was beautiful to contemplate with its layers that reminded one of sand dunes frozen in time. In fact, it is widely accepted that the depositional environment at the time that the Navajo sand was deposited was terrestrial, and these were in fact, windswept dunes. They always brought to my mind the idea of dunes on Mars - red, of course, the harsh environment representing the very outer limit an extreme environment. The environment it represented was one on the verge of huge change - it would transition to something else, and it would happen soon.
The parallel was inescapable. Our lives are caught in the times we live in. These are extreme times, and we are ever mindful of the possibility of catastrophic change due to nuclear conflagration. The question is simple: are we now positioned at the absolute extreme of one kind of existence? Are we at the tipping point? In mathematical terms, this would be the inflection point. It is the place where change takes place, or, rather the point at which it becomes detectable.
Obviously, we are all very much aware of this. While the particulars of how we'll be forced to catastrophically change shimmer like oil sheens on water, the underlying reality that we will metamorphose, either voluntarily or not, introduces a level of anxiety that we all share. Some of us prefer to take charge, keep a step ahead of the anxiety by engaging in lives of relentless activity. Others of us prefer to escape to our fantasy worlds.
Others of us simply drive around on the Extraterrestrial Highway and wonder what on earth brought us here.
"Yup. Looks like we're on the edge of Armageddon again," remarked my brother wryly.
"That's scary. Do you really think so?" I asked.
"Look. Activity again. It does not have the signature of a regular earthquake. It's an underground test."
"Now, that's something I can't tell. It could be far away. Just can't tell." My brother looked again at the equipment.
I thought briefly of my ex-husband and wondered what he might be up to. I wished I knew his phone number. I could call him up and ask him how he was doing, discuss the meaning of life. That would certainly result in an argument and insults hurled my way. The pain would distract me. It would be a good way to take my mind off the sickening anxiety I was starting to feel.
"Got a spaceship anywhere?" I asked, looking at the Nevada S.H. 385 Extraterrestrial Highway sign.
"No don't you wish you hadn't wasted so much of your life worrying about useless things?" he asked. I was surprised. My brother was not usually inclined to make introspective or reflective remarks.
"True. I also wonder how it is that I never quite conquered the baseline sadness and despair I have felt since I was about 14."
"Doesn't really matter in the overall scheme of things, does it?" he asked.
"Well, yes and no," I said. "I think I've made colossally stupid decisions because of it. I also think it has made me feel spurned, and thus driven to compensate - overcompensate - for the fact I feel unaccepted by "polite" society," I said.
"Yup. Life is easier for an extraterrestrial," he said.
"In the meantime, I think we've got some good prospects here. How are you going to spend your first royalty check?" I asked, trying to lighten the mood.
He didn't say anything, just laughed and started to unhook the equipment and put it back in the back of the truck. We headed back to Pahrump. As the sun set, a meteor shower punctuated the dusk.
Tomorrow would be another day, shattering consciousness like shards of light spilling hope into the dark night of my heart.